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Prof's English Blog

10 July 2013
How to object to the unobjectionable

Here, we are going to look at how the careful use of language allows you to object to something, no matter how good or desirable it might be. You might wonder why anyone would want to do this, but plentiful examples abound. This is because, in the search for 'balance', the media can be counted on to find and quote someone against practically anything. Of course, sometimes those objecting to something good and desirable are in the business of supplying something less good and more undesirable. For such people it is important to hide the true reason for objecting. The following phrases allow one to object to anything from a new wonder drug to the establishment of world peace.

Firstly, 'no-one has proven it is completely safe'. This is certain to work for most things, since almost nothing is completely safe, including sunlight, milk and mom's apple pie. And secondly, the clarity of the statement hides a logical fallacy. You cannot prove a negative, and if you think you can, try proving that invisible unicorns don't live at the bottom of your garden. When someone indignantly points out that no-one has ever found any evidence for your claim be it a lack of invisible unicorn poop or proof of harm smugly reply 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' This neat verbal symmetry sounds good reasonable almost.

If that fails, claim that whatever you object to is 'the start of a slippery slope'. Ah yes,world peace. It sounds good, but is the start of a slippery slope that leads to complacency and moral decadence. Motherhood and apple pie? The start of a slippery slope that leads to over-dependence and choking on sharp pie crusts. (You do know that no-one has proven that apple pies are completely safe?) The useful thing about this expression is that, as the person making the claim, you can tilt the proverbial slippery slope to lead in whatever direction you choose. And a 'slippery slope' is a common metaphor, so it must be true.

Finally condemn something as 'insensitive'. There is not a word or an item on the planet that can fail to offend some cause or minority if examined (or glared at) hard enough. The classic example is the professor who was condemned for sexist language by saying something gave more 'bang for the buck'. That this is actually a military term meaning bigger explosions for less money did not get the hapless professor off the hook. His use of language was nevertheless 'insensitive', with patriarchal militarism now added to the charge sheet.

Now, let's apply what we have learned. We can't prove this article is safe, because it might be the start of a slippery slope leading to scaremongering and pointless obstructionism. And it is insensitive because .
15 May 2013
Good judgement?

'People judge me because I prefer to live on my own' I heard a woman remark on a radio program recently. This caused me to note that in modern language, unless done by a properly appointed magistrate in a court of law, 'judging' someone is considered almost a social offence.

Yet why is this so? We praise someone for having good judgement, and condemn or sympathize with poor judgement, yet in social terms we are now apparently not meant to be 'judgemental' at all. Yet without judgement, how do we choose our friends? Should we consider a person as a possible marriage or business partner without exercising our judgement? Seriously?

In fact, of course we judge people all the time. Believe the advertisements on TV, and we too are judged: on our clothes, our choice of car, and our dental hygiene (okay, with dental hygiene, I actually do judge people on that). So why is 'being judgemental' now considered bad?

The answer is that the value of judgement has not changed, but language has. You don't mind being judged if the conclusion is that you are brave, dependable and incredibly good-looking. What you do not want is negative judgement, or what used to be called 'criticism'.

These days we do not criticize someone for being lazy and untidy, we get judgemental about their lifestyle. In both cases, it is not that people are using their judgement or critical abilities that the object of it resents - he resents that people consider him an idle slob. Even if - in fact particularly if - he actually is an idle slob.

'Judging' is a negative act because it is assumed that the person doing it can't see beyond perceived faults to appreciate another as the beautiful, unique being he actually is. That's what doomed 'criticize' as a word in the first place. It originally meant an impartial, informed opinion. We still accept the term this way with theatre or restaurant critics, and recognize that such people can say something positive. However criticism from a non-professional is always assumed to be negative. and describing someone as 'critical' is well, criticism.

So 'judgement' is the new criticism. You'll note that saying something positive about others is never considered 'judging' them, however strongly your opinion is expressed. Though 'criticism' meant negatively is a misuse of the word, in many ways 'judging' is a more insidious use of language. Criticism is shared. We are not meant to 'judge' others, even to ourselves in our heads - as if doing so is not an essential life skill.

Folks, it's time to strike a blow for freedom of thought. Next time someone condemns you for being 'judgemental' ask in response 'And are you judging me for that? How dare you actually form an opinion!'
15 March 2013
On being ept and gainly

Recently I came across the word 'couth'; as in 'this place of beauty, calm and couth'. It was in a poem by the sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, who, like many a wordsmith, could cobble together a decent verse when he was of a mind to do so. But 'couth'?

We are all familiar with the opposite, 'uncouth' especially those of us who listen to politicians going on about the youth of today. And if 'uncouth' has a prefix which indicates the opposite of the quality which follows, then 'couth' should refer to someone genteel and sophisticated. As indeed it does, though the modern word is what etymologists call a 'back-formation'. A 'cuth' person in old Saxon was well-known, not refined. But someone 'uncuth' was a nobody, and therefore probably uncultured, boorish, and not worth knowing. So once 'uncouth' became established in the language, it became natural to re-define 'couth' as the opposite, and the original meaning of 'cuth' as 'known' dropped away.

This scrap of information leads us on to explore whole sets of what are known as 'upaired words'. That is, words which look as though they ought to have an opposite in English, but that opposite is either seldom used, or non-existent. For example can a disgruntled person ever become 'gruntled'? Well, no, because 'to gruntle' five hundred years ago was to utter a little snort of satisfaction. A disgruntled person was in no mood to do this, because circumstances had removed his urge to gruntle, not to be gruntled.

So unpaired words allow us to take a hapless, gormless person who is feckless, dishevelled, unkempt and unruly and create his antithesis - a hapful, gaumy person, who is feckful, shevelled, kempt and ruly. By a pleasing sort of symmetry 61-year-old politicians tend think of themselves as the latter type and of 16-year-olds as the former.
15 January 2013
Ladies and gentlemen, wers and wifs ....

Have you noticed that in language terms men and women have an identity crisis? A reminder of this hit me the other day when I came across an article by a feminist writer entitled 'Don't call me lady'. The term is apparently 'loaded with classist, sexist history.' Maybe so, but I remember a director of studies who was rebuked by a teacher for calling her mother a lady. 'She's a woman, not a lady!' The director of studies calmly replied 'Well, you know your own mother best.' The teacher's indignation at this response suggests at least a certain ambiguity.

Anyway the term 'woman' has issues as well, because it is believed to define women by their relationship with the male. This has led to some writers preferring the term 'womyn', a word which, apart from being an etymological monster, rather misses the point. The term 'woman' originally defined females by gender and species, which seems perfectly correct, politically and etymologically. It's the perception that needs changing, not the word.

'Woman' has very respectable origins, coming from the Old English 'wif' + 'man'. And 'man' in Old English was gender neutral, simply meaning 'a person'. So a 'Woman' was a 'female human being'. A male human being was a 'wer-man'. Dropping the 'wer' bit has caused all sorts of problems, and has led to the male linguistic identity crisis. 'Man' has a lot of ambiguity about it. When we read that 'man is an irrational creature', is the writer talking about males in particular, or humans in general? Where the gender wars spill over into language, we find 'businessman' being replaced by 'business-person' despite the fact that female executives are evidently human and part of mankind.

Some other languages get around the issue by adding a masculine or feline suffix as required, but these languages generally insist on making things like kitchen tables male or female as well. Personally I rather like the idea of adding a prefix, so we get a 'wif-businessman' or a 'wer-businessman' when its essential to define the gender, but leaving 'businessman' as gender neutral - as the term should be most of the time.
15 November 1012
What's the word for this year?

Apparently it's 'omnishambles'. That, at least, is the opinion of the Oxford University Press, which every year picks a word which best sums up the mood of the times (or 'Zeitgeist' which would have been a candidate if the OUP had been picking a word of the year back when Zeitgeist entered English in 1848). Of course, the OUP is not the only group which picks a word of the year. The American selection for 2012 is '.gif' which stands for 'graphics image format'. This suggests that our transatlantic cousins are sadly behind the times, as the cool web developers long ago replaced gif images with the superior png version.

Creating an 'omnishambles' - defined as 'a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations' - seems to be one of the few things that large government agencies are doing better these days, so it's worth looking at the word in more detail.

The first thing that will cause the purist to shudder gently is that the word is a Latin-German hybrid. There used to be a time when a new word was assembled from the bits of just one language, as with 'telephone'; where 'tele' and 'phone' both come from Greek (meaning 'distant-talk'). However, with the linguistic jumble of 'onishambles' it seems entirely appropriate that the word should be something of an omnishambles itself.

A shambles used to be a meat-market, with entrails and other tasty bits of animal insides spread out on vendor's benches for the delectation of the shopping public. In the late nineteenth century someone decided that this scene was literally a bloody mess, and so a 'shambles' has come to mean any kind of metaphorical mess,but preferably one that has been disorganized by an expert. The 'omni' part is a prefix which means 'every' and is most not used in modern speech with reference to a form of public transport. This is the 'omnibus' which means 'for everybody' and is universally abbreviated to 'bus'.

So an 'omnishambles' is something which is shambolic in every way, shape and direction, possibly extending even into unknown dimensions. Because the word of the year sums up the spirit of that particular year, there's no guarantee that the word will have staying power and make it into the dictionaries of the future. There is nothing more uncool than using out-of-date slang. But let's hope that omnishambles goes the distance. Can you think of a better word to use when complaining about conditions in the National Health Service?

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